Brought to You by the United States Army
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A very special thank you to Seneca White Deer, Inc., the nonprofit that works tirelessly to preserve this piece of nature and wildlife, and who are responsible for organizing these white deer tours. The people working for Seneca White Deer were amazingly helpful to UWanderings as we got to know the history of the Seneca Army Depot and see the furry critters that call this place home.
Our recent trip to see this elusive white deer population was nothing short of amazing. This is the world’s largest population of white deer. They aren’t mutants, they aren’t albinos…they’re actually just white tailed deer. But they’ve been enclosed in a 10,000 acre compound for almost 80 years, relatively undisturbed, so they’ve had a chance to breed and pass on this rare, recessive gene that makes them primarily white in color without too much in the way of natural predators.
The site of the white deer is also of major historical significance. They live on what used to be the Seneca Army Depot, a munitions depot built by the U.S. Army in the summer of 1941—in anticipation of America’s likely looming involvement in World War II. Though useful for the war effort, the construction of this giant project came at a sad cost: over 100 families–many farmers–were given short notice to vacate. In other words, they were evicted and poorly compensated. The remains of some foundations are still visible today. However, the end of the Second World War didn’t mean the Depot was obsolete. The Cold War was just heating up, and this place was anything but redundant.
The Seneca Army Depot, or “the Depot”, as it was locally known, was a large repository of Cold War era weapons when it was still active. But the absolute secrecy of the place, coupled with the government barely acknowledging its existence in the first place, contributed to its mysterious nature and an uncomfortable level of anxiety by the community. It was Upstate New York’s Area 51.
Officially, the U.S. government kept a tight lid on the Depot’s inventory—and what went on there—by confirming nothing. But it was widely believed that aside from traditional munitions like bullets and artillery, the Depot was also home to a fairly large stockpile of nuclear weapons, ready to be deployed anywhere in the world at a moments’ notice. And because of the perceived nuclear inventory, it was also thought that the Seneca Army Depot was a top target on the Soviet hit list in the event of a nuclear exchange, so the site was not without controversy.
The secrecy and denial by Uncle Sam didn’t stop the countless anti-nuclear weapons protesters from demonstrating right outside its gates over the years, with many getting arrested for disrupting operations or even trying to break in by scaling the fence. There was even a well known group of anti-war women who continuously camped out adjacent to the Depot grounds so as to permanently remind the U.S. government that not everyone was comfortable with having nukes in their backyards.
Despite the mysteries that went on behind the fence, the white deer well known due to their occasional appearances at the border fence for passersby. The deer were protected by the soldiers that were based there, thanks to an early base commander who, in 1949, saw the first white deer on the Depot grounds and ordered all personnel to leave them alone. They were not to be hunted or bothered. The orders stood for the rest of the time the Depot operated. They even become an unofficial mascot of the Depot and the people who worked there. Now that the base is inactive, declassified, and in private hands, locals are flocking to see these white deer up close and, because it was forbidden for so long, the base itself.
This tour was awesome, not just because of the deer, but also because of all the other wildlife we saw. It’s a virtual nature preserve. Osprey, eagles, beavers, wild turkeys, turkey vultures…and so much more. And of course, there’s plenty of normal colored deer with fluffy white tails. They’re actually pretty cute.
Part of the fun with this tour is keeping a keen eye on the scenery to spot the white deer. Sometimes they’re obvious; other times, you have to intently look around as the bus moves through the terrain, so don’t be shy about shouting out “There’s one!”, at which point the bus will stop or back up so everyone can get a better view. You can really get into it. On the cold, overcast day we visited, the deer weren’t in the mood to come right up to our bus, as they sometimes do, but the sparse spring foliage made them easy to spot through the trees. But they moved fast, so our photography was a little shaky.
Although there are some small developments here and there, most of the former Depot is still either wild nature or nature that’s slowly reclaiming the land from manmade structures, which gives the whole base a sort of zombie apocalypse vibe. And since Zombies are cool right now, that definitely makes this tour much more interesting. For all the military buffs out there, there are over 500 weapons storage bunkers, otherwise known as igloos, that still stand to this day. Talk about Cold War relics. We even got to go inside one. It was pretty cool–check out the video above for more on that.
Seneca White Deer has been running these tours for about six months now, and they’re catching on fast. Since people from all over the world visit the Finger Lakes region for the wine, it’s only a matter of time before they come to see the deer, too. White deer simply don’t exist in such large numbers anywhere else in the world.
It’s human nature to explore things that are rare and unusual. Perfect for us, perfect for the curious travelers out there like you.
So we welcome you to join us as we discover the white deer of the Finger Lakes, and do be sure visit for yourself someday. The deer will be here to say “hi.”
Seneca White Deer, Inc.
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